Sunday, February 23, 2014

Joe vs. The 2014 Best Picture Nominees (Round 1)

I spent all day Saturday at a place called the Northbrook Court, a million-square-foot shopping plaza about 19 minutes from my apartment.

Wikipedia calls it "a very large, upscale super-regional mall in Northbrook, Illinois" and "one of the most upscale collection[s] of shops in the United States." I guess that's about right. The description makes the place sound a little more hoity-toity than it really is. I mean, a mall is a mall is a mall, upscale or not. A little marble, a tasteful color scheme and some parquet flooring won't turn your shopping center into the Guggenheim. Bottom line: malls are tacky. That's why they merit an entry in Jane and Michael Stern's The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste (HarperCollins, 1990) between "Macrame" and "Mansfield, Jayne." Trying to build the world's classiest mall is like trying to see who can fart the quietest. Northbrook looks huge from the outside, stretching on and on forever like the bad guys' ship in the opening shot of Spaceballs. But once you get inside, where everything is smooth and shiny, you'll feel as closed-in and claustrophobic as you would at any other mall. The dump has some history, though. Some scenes from Ordinary People were filmed there, as was this deathless moment from Weird Science:



Slumdog was my ticket to Hell. Who knew?
Who knows? Perhaps at some point during my many circumnavigations of the Northbrook Court yesterday, I may have unknowingly trodden over the same ground as Robert Downey, Jr. or Anthony Michael Hall. The heart races. The mind reels. Anyway, I was at the Northbrook Court for Day One of the AMC theater chain's annual Best Picture Showcase, a marathon of all the movies nominated for the top prize at the Oscars this year. In years past, when there were only five nominees, you could watch 'em all in a single, exhausting day. Now that there are nine flicks up for the statuette, the event takes two non-consecutive days to complete. The second and final day of the 2014 BPS is this Saturday, March 1, 2014. I've been doing the Showcase since 2009, when Slumdog Millionaire took home the prize. Goddamn, this is my sixth time through the process! I'm not sure exactly why I started or why I've continued. Maybe I thought it would be a convenient way to catch up on all the critically-lauded movies I should have seen by the end of the previous calendar year. Maybe I'm a pop culture masochist and just like the idea of subjecting myself to a cinematic endurance test. However you slice it, the Best Picture Showcase is a great big hunk of what I'd call Middlebrow Respectability. These are flicks that critics and audiences can feel comfortable praising -- not too crude, not too artsy, and usually with some kind of socially redeeming value. From having watched a bunch of them, I can tell you a few things about Best Picture nominees. Almost all dramas, they tend to be longish (somewhere between 2-3 hours is the sweet spot), stately (read: a little dull), and preachy, commenting on the great issues of our time (and of all time) with lots of heartfelt speeches and crying. These films are attractively, carefully photographed and usually feature a lot of syrupy, manipulative music on the soundtrack. An inordinate amount are based on true stories and end with those captions telling you whatever happened to the characters in real life. Most of the plots conform to a simple formula: "____________ is bad." You know, war is bad, racism is bad, slavery is bad, greed is bad, politicians are bad, alcoholism is bad, the Catholic Church is bad, corporations are bad, etc., etc. South Park's Mr. Mackey would have no trouble churning out Oscar-winning screenplays.

So how is this year's crop of nominees? Eh, pretty typical, I'd say. Maybe a little better than usual. Here's my recap of Day One:

PHILOMENA

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan fly the friendly skies in Philomena.

Director: Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, The Queen)

Based on a true story: Yes, specifically Martin Sixmith's The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.

These things are bad, m'kay: The Catholic Church (duh), mean nuns, old-timey Irish orphanages and workhouses, British politics, a value system which demonizes female sexuality, having your children taken from you, Republicans, homophobia, AIDS.

My take: Basically, an odd couple/road movie with Steve Coogan as a disgraced spin doctor who comes crawling back to journalism and finds an intriguing "human interest story" in the form of a retired Irish nurse named Philomena (Dench), who was forced to give up her out-of-wedlock child decades ago and now wants to find him. The movie has a sort of Rain Man-type feel, except that it comes slathered in Catholic guilt. Where Dustin Hoffman was wowed by Kmart and Judge Wapner, Philomena rhapsodizes about Big Momma's House, romance paperbacks, and hotel breakfast buffets. Coogan is the snarky, sarcastic one, and they have a few squabbles over religion and God. Philomena is a lot like a Payday candy bar. Coogan is salty, and Dench is sweet and nutty. This is the kind of movie you can feel safe recommending to just about anyone, even elderly relatives, unless they're really offended by profanity (both Coogan and Dench cuss on occasion). It seems like every Best Picture Showcase starts with a well-made "little" movie that has no chance at winning the prize. In years past, it was Milk, Amour, and An Education. This year, it's Philomena. Tell your grandmother about it. She'll love it.

My grade: B

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey are unlikely partners in Dallas Buyers Club.

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria; C.R.A.Z.Y.; this is by far his best-known film)

Based on a true story: Yes. Various Hollywood types have been trying to turn Ron Woodroof's life into a film since the mid-1990s.

These things are bad, m'kay: AIDS (again), homophobia (again), the FDA, the pharmaceutical industry, the medical establishment, sexual promiscuity, cocaine, processed foods, and the overuse of AZT.

My take: This was more my speed, though if I'd been the one at the helm of this motion picture, I'd have made it less sentimental, corny, and obvious. It's still pretty good, though. Matthew McConaughey, rail-thin and dressed up like a cowboy pimp, is Ron Woodroof, a hard-living no-account rodeo hustler and electrician who finds out he has the HIV virus and only enough T-cells left to last him another month. He responds to this sobering news at first by scoffing at the diagnosis and partying even more heartily, but he quickly jumps from Denial to Bargaining and spends most of the rest of the movie there. A quick study in AIDS research, Woodroof stumbles onto a business opportunity as he provides other HIV-positive Texans with experimental, non-FDA-approved treatment, thereby rankling the stuffy medical community and the corrupt pharmaceutical industry. Along the way, he forms unlikely partnerships with a cross-dresser named Rayon (Jared Leto), who lives even less responsibly than Woodroof, and a legitimate physician (Jennifer Garner), who is wary of Woodroof's rogue actions but is undeniably impressed by his courage and efficacy. The very best stuff in this movie is the interplay between McConaughey and Leto, both surprisingly excellent, and I kind of wish the movie had not tried so hard to mold their story into an inspirational tearjerker. Like I said, though, it's quality stuff.

My grade: B+


THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

Leonardo DiCaprio knows how to spend his dough in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Director: Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver)

Based on a true story: Yes. It's based on Jordan Belfort's similarly-titled 1998 autobiography. Belfort himself plays a small role in this film.

These things are bad, m'kay: Wall Street, stock brokers, greed, materialism, cocaine (again), expired Quaaludes, the American legal system, having your children taken from you (again).

My take: "Heaven...  I'm in Heaven!" Occasionally, I like to pretend that certain movies were made specifically for me because they so closely conform to my interests or sensibilities. The Wolf of Wall Street is such a film. Martin Scorsese has given us another heaping slab of sleazy sex, brain-scrambling drugs, and raw, bluesy, primordial rock & roll. I think this was the only movie of the day which didn't have that "serious Oscar movie" music in it. You have no idea how much that helps its case. Just look at the artists on the soundtrack: Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, Romeo Void, Me First & the Gimme Gimmes, Jimmy Castor, and so much more! That's what I'm talking about! Jesus Christ, there's even a marching band in this thing! And Popeye -- my favorite cartoon character ever -- is here, too! Of the four films I saw on Saturday, this is the only one I'd ever want to see again. I kind of wish I were watching it right now. Let's not kid ourselves about one major point, though: The Wolf of Wall Street is definitely Goodfellas version 2.0. Anyone who tells you differently, even Scorsese, is bullshitting you. And, yeah, it's three hours. Think of it as shotgunning an entire season of a premium cable TV show in one sitting. Someday, I may have to write an essay about a prominent motif in many of the male-female relationships in Scorsese's movies. I call it "the princess and the guttersnipe" plot, and it goes all the way back to Marty's debut, Who's That Knocking at My Door? with Zina Bethune as the princess and Harvey Keitel as the guttersnipe. You can find versions of this theme in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy and even Hugo. Anyway, I'm drifting away from the main point, which is that I give my highest recommendation possible to The Wolf of Wall Street. See it, ya fuggin' bagadonuts!

My grade: A+


12 YEARS A SLAVE

Chiweti Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender get up close and creepy in 12 Years a Slave.

Director: Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger)

Based on a true story: Yes, the film is an adaptation of Solomon Northrup's 1853 autobiography, Twelve Years a Slave.

These things are bad, m'kay: Slavery (duh), racism (double duh), rape, the Old South in general, whippings, lynchings, dehumanization, crazy white people, having your children taken away from you (yet again!)

My take: Okay, class, let's have a show of hands. Who here didn't know that slavery was evil and degrading and cruel and violent and morally unjustifiable? Anyone? No hands? Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave strikes me as the kind of film everyone admires and no one enjoys. File it alongside Gandhi and Schindler's List among the movies that people will feel obligated to sit through once and then never revisit. But don't we need an occasional reminder about the visceral horrors of slavery? Don't we need to see the blood and the welts and hear the anguished screams? Well, yeah, I suppose so...if maybe you were thinking of starting up a plantation next week. Under those circumstances, you might see Steve McQueen's film and think, "Oh, right! Slavery is bad! I nearly forgot!" The movie's artfulness works against it. The cinematography is often postcard-pretty, and the compositions have a fastidious, fussed-over quality to them. The dialogue, likewise, is stilted and poetic rather than naturalistic and conversational. Maybe that's just how people talked back in the mid-1800s, but even then, I doubt that they would address the issues of slavery so directly, as if they knew they were elucidating certain points for the benefit of a listening audience. Much like Philomena and Dallas Buyers Club, 12 Years a Slave is altogether too concerned with providing "teachable moments" for the viewer. Without them, the movie would be little more than gourmet torture porn. Thanks largely to the actors inhabiting the roles, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, and Alfre Woodard (whose scene is a stunner), several of the film's African-American characters are vivid and memorable. The film's white characters are largely muddled non-entities, like Brad Pitt's liberal do-gooder, or grotesque cartoons, like Michael Fassbender's sadistic plantation owner, yet another iteration of black-hatted, mustache-twirling Simon Legree. And thanks to composer Hans Zimmer's heavy-handed score, we're never in doubt as to how we're supposed to feel... as if we couldn't just arrive at that conclusion on our own. The film's most effective passages occur when McQueen shows rather than tells, especially a nerve-jangling scene in which Ejiofor must stand on his tiptoes with a noose around his neck for what seems like an eternity. What makes the moment so effective is all the background activity, with extras going about their business as if nothing horrific were occurring.

My grade: B

Next week: Nebraska, Captain Phillips, Her, American Hustle, and Gravity.

2 comments:

  1. There was a time when I worked really hard to see all the films, but that ship has sailed. I still love that the Academy does the 5-10 best pictures because it does highlight films that you'd never otherwise have seen (or heard of). I always use An Education and Winter's Bone as prime examples of that. This year, I've seen Gravity & 12 Years (whoa, was I supposed to walk away from that thinking slavery was BAD?) and would like to eventually catch Nebraska (becuase I do love Payne) and Wall Street (just to be able to join the conversation). I have the DVD for Dallas Buyers' Club just sitting on my coffee table, where it's been for three weeks. I suppose I should follow your lead and put it in, but for some reason, that feels like so much work.

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    1. Dallas Buyers Club is no work at all to sit through, though. It goes by quickly. I failed to mention in the article that Griffin Dunne is in the movie. I don't know about you, but that's a HUGE selling point for me. (I think you once mentioned, though, that you hadn't yet seen After Hours. That movie is the one which made me a lifetime Griffin Dunne fan.)

      And, yes, slavery is bad.

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